Inferno: eternal or not?

The past few days three ACC clergy and a Metropolitan Archbishop from the Old Roman Catholic tradition have exchanged thoughts about the ultimate inferno: hell. Fr. Jonathan Munn (here and here)   maintains that it is Christ’s teaching that κόλασιν αἰώνιον (kolasin aionion) ought to be translated as eternal punishment. The eternity of the punishment is of the same eternity as is ζωὴν αἰώνιον (eternal life) as seems to follow from a reading of Matthew 25, 31-46. Fr, Munn also points out, that the parable of Dives and Lazarus seems to leave little doubt about the absolute eternity and hopelessness of hell (Luke chapter 16).

Archbishop Jerome, on the other hand, seems to approach the reality of hell from the point of view of a free-will perspective. God’s love is offered freely to all. The only ones who will not receive it are the ones rejecting it and they, therefore, must suffer the consequences of their freely chosen rejection of God. Again a logic which is certainly rooted in Scripture as much as is Fr. Munn’s.

Fr. Anthony Chadwick (of Sarum Rite fame ! ) confesses sympathy with positions closer to my own but warns us that the matter is not open for us to pry too deeply into (see here). He, it would seem, would have us adopt a good dose of epistemic humility in our assertions on this topic. A very wise counsel indeed. One I confess to not always have followed. I must ask Fr. Chadwick to forgive me !

Eternal or not?

In an interesting article Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan trace the history of the words αἰώνιος and ἀίδιος in Christian and pre-Christian usage. Mention is made in their research that Xenophanes used the term ἀίδιος to mean “indestructible,” “immortal,” and even of “ungenerated.” This means – at least – that the use of this word to mean “eternal” seems to have roots that go deeper than Scripture and the Patristic authors.

But what about αἰώνιος ? Ramelli and Konstan note that Plato’s use of the term αἰώνιος as “eternal” is novel and not continued by his student Aristotle. The latter prefers ἀίδιος and seems to have no need for Plato’s creativity here. It would also seem that the sparse use of ἀίδιος in the Septuagint is all the more remarkable due to the frequent use made of it in the surrounding Hellenic context. The Septuagint does, however, use the term αἰώνιος more frequently. A particularly interesting use of these terms occurs in 4 Maccabees (a book not accepted in the Western canon of Scripture) :

In 4 Mac., 12: 12, an impious tyrant is threatened with “αἰωνίον” for the entire age or world to come (εἰς ὅλον τὸν αἰῶνα). But here we find the expression βίος ἀίδιος or “eternal life” as well (τὸν ἀίδιον τῶν εὐσεβῶν βίον), in reference to the afterlife of the martyrs; this blessed state, moreover, is opposed to the lasting destruction of their persecutor in the world to come (τὸν αἰώνιον τοῦ τυράννου ὄλεθρον, ibid.). This contrast between the parallel but antithetical expressions ὄλεθρος αἰώνιος and βίος ἀίδιος is notable. Both adjectives refer to the afterlife, that is, a future αἰών, but whereas retribution is described with the more general and polysemous term αἰώνιος, to life in the beyond is applied the more technical term ἀίδιος, denoting, at least in classical philosophy, a strictly endless condition.

Ramelli & Konstan, Terms for Eternity, p. 33.

The term αἰώνιος as it occurs in the New Testament is ambiguous enough that its meaning has been given in opposing extremes. Ramelli and Konstan provide one example of each. On the one hand William Russel Straw asserts that αἰών means eternity and αἰώνιος always means eternal or everlasting. On the other hand Peder Margido Myhre affirms that :

As αἰών in the New Testament is limited to denote the ages of the past, present, and future of this world, so the adjective should follow that usage except when modifying God. Consequently, these words which do not mean “endless” cannot prove the everlastingness of God, for then they would also prove the everlastingness of sinners.

It would appear that the meaning of the terms under discussion depends upon the exegetical presuppositions the exegete brings to the text, as well as upon the noun qualified by the particular adjective. This can be illustrated with an example from the English language as follows below.

When always does not mean always

In English always refers to an unending duration of time. For example: “I will always love you” intends to say “I will love forever” (unending duration). On the other hand when we say: “He is always late for breakfast” we do not mean to say that being late for breakfast is an event which endures forever. The meaning of “always” depends on the thing it is referring to. Likewise in Greek and the passage of St. Matthew’s Gospel (25, 31-46). Eternal when referring to God, or the life given by God, is likely to mean both “unending duration” as well as a different kind of life from what we live here and now. It does not necessarily follow that  αἰώνιον means the same thing when it qualifies either kolasin (pruning rather than punishment) or zoe (life). The meaning of  αἰώνιον depends on other factors. God, and by extension the life He gives, is eternal in both senses. It is qualitatively different from this life and it is everlasting in duration. The same cannot be said of sin, sinners, and their pruning (punishment). When  αἰώνιον modifies “pruning” (κόλασιν) it has reference to an activity (pruning) which is by nature limited in duration. For that reason it seems unlikely (assuming the Nicene Faith) that κόλασιν αἰώνιον and ζωὴν αἰώνιον as we find these used in St. Matthew’s Gospel use αἰώνιον in the same exact sense. The meaning of αἰώνιον is not obvious but requires an act of interpretation. There is therefore no way that Matthew 25, 31-46 can be used to rule out universalism. 

Lazarus and Dives

Fr. Munn also refers to a passage from Luke’s Gospel where the Evangelist recounts the parable of Dives and the poor Lazarus. It seems to Fr. Munn that this passage clearly asserts the eternity (unending duration) of hell. In my 7 years as a Priest, I have had several occasions to preach on this precise Gospel parable. But unlike Fr. Munn I have never interpreted the parable as teaching an unending duration for hell. Quite to the contrary! To me the most interesting part is the “pruning” going on in the soul of Dives. While suffering the flames of hell Dives undergoes a transformation. From a lifelong habit of self-centeredness, which puts him in hell, Dives re-orients his heart to his family members. That is to say, his self-centeredness begins to break down and a love of others begins to appear. The κόλασιν αἰώνιον begins to have an effect and a definite movement toward ζωὴν αἰώνιον is achieved! The unbridgeable gap appears to be unbridgeable not by nature, but by lack of repentance.

How is repentance possible in the afterlife? This is a question for another time, but the basics would be as follows: no-one in hell can perform acts of repentance (for lack of a body to perform them with). Thus we must affirm that there is no repentance in the afterlife. But the Church prays for the departed, including those in hell. I would say that it is precisely the Offices of the Dead and Requiems (and other such devotions) offered on behalf of the dead is what is needed for souls such as Dives’s in order to have access to repentance. It is our acts in the body which assist our departed in their process of “pruning” toward the ζωὴν αἰώνιον. This also means that it is this life that has been given for repentance, penance, and the attainment of heaven. The afterlife is not meant for repentance and to progress in the afterlife from “lost” to “saved” is much harder when compared to this life. Hell really is hell. It may not be everlasting, but it is not to be taken lightly. Naturally this suggestion needs fleshing out, but this is what I would suggest as to “how it works.”

I cannot recommend enough that we all pray with St. Isaac the Syrian the following prayer:

I beg and beseech you, Lord: grant to all who have gone astray a true knowledge of you, so that each and everyone may come to know your glory. In the case of those who have passed from this world lacking a virtuous life and having had no faith, be an advocate for them, Lord, for the sake of the body which you took from them, so that from the single united body of the world we may offer up praise to Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the kingdom of heaven, an unending source of eternal light.

It seems to me that this is a prayer from the “merciful heart” such as the same Father famously defined it. And it also seems to me that such a merciful heart has been enlarged to contain the love that God is and truly knows Him. Knowledge is not a matter of dialectics or definitions, but of knowing of prayer.

Fr. Gregory Wassen


4 thoughts on “Inferno: eternal or not?

  1. Hello. I really enjoyed this article as I myself have never been able to believe in eternal conscious torment. May I ask how would you answer the objection that God has allowed the church for centuries to teach eternal conscious torment not to mention the various saints who have claimed to have had visions of such. If some form of universalism is true then would God not have allowed this doctrine to have had some witness at every stage of the church’s history?

    1. I would say that it is precisely God who took care that such a vision has always been preserved in the Church – even if only as a minority position. We can find “universalists” throughout the history of the Church. There is an exhaustive study of “universalism” or apokatastasis of about 900 pages by Ilaria Ramelli. It only covers the patristic era, but more volumes are coming ( last I heard).

  2. Thanks for a wonderful post, Father Wassen, with your highly careful turns of diligence providing much to consider, as well as comforting hope. While I am not overly inclined in an academic approach to scripture, I can still appreciate the etic perspective that such unpacking can bring. However, considering that many such contributions might add to the conversation, without providing final resolution, some unresolved questions (such as this one) can sometimes be answered unexpectedly through an emic perspective — that is, through an inspiration which arises from within the subjective side of practice and worship.

    I have heard my share of words that warn of taking the possibility of an eternal suffering unseriously. However, over time what has been appearing in my thoughts with increased insinuation, is the possibility of a different kind of intervention, apart from an academic or theological one: that is, from those spiritual revelations which should comprise an important part of our Catholic heritage and practice.

    I am thinking specifically of the brief prayer that was supplied by Our Lady at Fatima to the children, and which is commonly incorporated as an oft-repeated Rosary recitation: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy.”

    It strikes me that such a prayer is asking us to request that ALL souls be led to salvation — not just some. In which case, I would never consider that our Lady would deceive us by supplying us with such a prayer — which actually contains such a hope — if it were not indeed possible. But then, you have also reminded us in your closing words, of the knowledge that comes through prayer.

    Thank you again Fr. Gregory, and on the eve of this forthcoming Lenten season, I wish you a blessed inner pilgrimage.

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